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Stone Age Britons Feasted While Building Stonehenge

A new exhibit shows that the builders gorged on animals from as far away as Scotland

(English Heritage)
smithsonian.com

Quite understandably, building Stonehenge required plenty of fuel. After all, the small army of Stone Age Britons who built the massive bluestone circle faced a monumental task—literally. The BBC reports that a new exhibit at the Stonehenge visitors center called “Feast! Food at Stonehenge” shows that the builders brought in animals, including pigs and cattle from as far as northeast Scotland, to gorge on.

Steven Morris at The Guardian reports that researchers from several universities have been working for years to decode just what the Stonehenge builders ate. In one study, the researchers examined 38,000 animal bones and teeth found in Durrington Walls. The village, located about a mile and half northeast from the stone ring, is where the monument’s builders are believed to have settled while constructing the pilgrimage site.

Analysis shows that the majority of animal bones come from pigs with a smaller percent coming from cattle. By looking at isotopes of strontium, an alkaline earth metal that accumulates in teeth, the researchers were able to determine where some of those animals fed when they were young. It turns out they came from all over Great Britain, even the far corners of Scotland, and most were slaughtered around nine months of age. Many of the pigs' teeth showed signs of decay, suggesting they were fattened with something sweet, like honey.

“This research shows people were raising cattle and pigs all around Britain and bringing them to Stonehenge,” Susan Greaney, a historian with English Heritage tells Morris. “That means people were probably aware of Stonehenge all around the country.”

Robin McKie at The Guardian reports that researchers also analyzed residues in cooking pots found in Durrington, finding fats, waxes and oils from meals cooked 2,500 years ago. “We found the larger pots contained mainly pork,” Oliver Craig, archaeologist at York University says. “However, smaller pots – which were found at different parts of the Durrington Walls site – contained dairy products.”

As Emily Beament at The Scotsman reports, many of the vessels holding dairy products were found in a ceremonial wooden circle suggesting the food had some sort of ceremonial meaning.

Whatever the purpose of the feasts were, they were probably quite a spectacle. Whereas in most archaeological sites from the time the bones of animals are picked clean, the Durrington site shows quite a bit of waste, with half-eaten pieces of meat tossed on the garbage. “People were killing animals, stringing them up and eating them on a massive scale,” Craig tells McKie. “It must have been quite a show.”

But that type of feasting was not common 2,500 years ago, and it’s unlikely the Stone Age diet was as meat-heavy as the leftovers suggest. “They wouldn’t have had the ability or wealth to kill that many animals on a regular basis,” Greaney tells Boudicca Fox-Leonard at The Telegraph. “So they would have been good at collecting leafy vegetables and digging up roots.”

That’s not to say they didn’t eat well. Greaney says they had some early cereal crops as well as pigs, goats and cattle. They would also forage for veggies, berries, crabapples, mushrooms, nuts and other wild foods. In fact, she says, they had the ingredients to create a primitive cheeseburger, an advanced form of food technology that didn’t appear until 4,500 years later.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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